“An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”
Where to begin? I honestly don’t know how to review this film – I suspect, much like the book was claimed to be “unfilmable”, this unfilmable film is “unreviewable.” But I’ll take a stab at it anyway. I first stumbled across the film when I happened to watch the trailer, and instantly fell in love. I felt inspired and awe-struck by the trailer alone, and I knew that this is a film I had to see. I hoped it would not let me down. The original novel was written by David Mitchell, an author whose work I know of shamefully little. The film is directed by the Wachowski Siblings – whose most famous work, The Matrix, I’ve recently had an ambivalent encounter with – and Tom Tkywer. At nearly 3 hours long, this film is not for the faint-hearted.
Within the first five minutes we witness the old, scarred Zachry speaking in a strange, futuristic dialect, journalist Luisa Ray travelling to a nuclear power plant to uncover a conspiracy, Timothy Cavendish writing on his typewriter, Robert Frobisher loading a pistol into his mouth, Adam Ewing seeking out Dr. Henry Goose, and the final interview of the clone Sonmi-451. The film doesn’t get any easier than that.
Cloud Atlas can be described as 6 separate stories woven together, although the more you watch the more it comes to resemble one story with 6 differing facets:
- 1849: On the South Pacific Ocean, after visiting a slave plantation on the Chatham Islands, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) helps a self-freed slave stowaway, Autua (David Gyasi), while his doctor, Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), slowly poisons him to steal his possessions. Upon arriving home, he joins an abolitionist movement.
- 1936: Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), inspired by Ewing’s journal, helps musician Vivyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) with his compositions, culminating in the composition of the Cloud Atlas Sextet. During this time he writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
- 1973: Journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets an older Sixsmith, who now works as nuclear physicist. After Sixsmith’s death, she works with Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) and Joe Napier (Keith David) to uncover the conspiracy to allow the nuclear reactors to fail. She is driven by the need not to repeat the mistakes of Frobisher, whose letters she reads.
- 2012: Publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), fleeing from gangsters to whom he owes money, is tricked into a militant nursing home by his brother, Denholme (James D’Arcy). He then escapes. His work as a publisher continues when he receives a manuscript based on Rey’s life, and also writes about his own story.
- 2144: In the dystopian city of Neo-Seoul, South Korea, the clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from servitude by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) and enters a resistance movement. A film based on Cavendish’s adventure helps to cement her beliefs. However the rebellion fails and Sonmi-451 is executed.
- 2321: In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a primitive society. Plagued by cannibals from another tribe, the people look towards their Goddess, Sonmi, for guidance. When the technologically advanced Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives, Zachry takes her to Sonmi’s temple, but they return to find his tribe has been wiped out.
I truly admire the way in which the action cuts between characters and the six time periods with such ease, finding links to tie certain sections of the stories together. For example, one moment Autua is balancing across the ship’s yard avoiding gunshots, and then the film cuts to Sonmi and Hae-Joo running across a walkway between buildings over the city, avoiding lasershots. Both Luisa and Timothy are chased by Hugo Weaving’s characters in a sequence from different stories edited together. When Sonmi discovers the grim fate of every clone, Zachry simultaneously discovers that his village has been massacred. When Adam and his wife Tilda decide to join the abolitionist movement, Tilda’s father’s speech, in which he claims the movement is destined to end in failure, is interspersed with shots of Sonmi’s execution.
As I described in the summary, events in one story directly impact another. As well-crafted as these initial connections are, the further you delve into the story you discover the subtler hints. The comet birthmark is one, although I believe, in the novel, this is supposed to indicate one character living again and again in different lives, which the film chose to change and do by actor – leaving the birthmark rather redundant. My favourites are the small connections, such as Vivyan’s house eventually becoming the care home Timothy (both played by Broadbent) is confined within. While Nurse Noakes threatens to make Timothy eat soap, the clones in Neo-Seoul are fed a substance called soap, which it’s later revealed is protein recycled from former clones. There is also, arguably, a development of the soul for each character: Hanks’ characters begin as scheming, selfish souls but develop into humble heroes. Broadbent’s follow a similar pattern. Meanwhile, Berry’s start off as persecuted characters – first as a Moriori slave and then a Jew in the 1930s – but develops into an independent journalist until finally becoming the most powerful character in the period as Meronym. I say arguably because I don’t think these were Mitchell’s original intentions, and is merely an interpretation. But, of course, the nature of Cloud Atlas leaves it open to so many interpretations.
Paradoxically, it is these connections between characters and times which was one of my favourite and least favourite aspects of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the links come together, but I felt it could have gone further with them. At the film’s end I was left wondering what the overall point and message had been. This isn’t necessarily a flaw. Maybe, being so used to linear plots, I feel as there needs to be an overarching idea where the film could work perfectly well without one.
One part of the film done absolutely perfectly was the acting, make-up and costumes which successfully disguised the actors in their repetitions across the 6 stories. Half of the characters I didn’t realise were played by recurring actors until afterwards, such as Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang and Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs. It is a crime that none of the actors were even nominated for an Oscar. I was particularly impressed when actors played a character of a different gender and race to their own – particularly Hae-Joo and Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes (which is perhaps one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a film). While these changes were never 100% convincing, I don’t think they were supposed to be – the audience is supposed to understand that this is the same person in a different life. I cannot praise this aspect of the film highly enough.
Another thing I loved about the film – something which probably hasn’t been mentioned by critics much – is the dialogue. Quite simply, it all felt so real. This is down to both the writing and the acting. When characters spoke to each other, I believed they were having a spontaneous conversation rather than performing in a well-rehearsed scene. Compare the dialogue here to the forced conversations in Shetland – for instance – and there’s really no contest. Best of all, I was stunned to discover that, in the post-apocalyptic world, I was not being dense by misunderstanding the characters but they were actually speaking in a futuristic dialect. Dialects and languages are complex things which evolve staggeringly quickly when isolated from the rest of the world, but to artificially create one is beyond impressive; it’s utter genius. It appears to be an extension of Southern US dialects, where certain beats of speech are given further emphasis and twangs. Artificial idioms and figures-of-speech are thrown in, making the dialect even more realistic. Read these excerpts:
- “Yоur аugurіn’ соmе truе, Αbbеѕѕ. Βrоkе brіdgе, јuѕt lіkе yоu ѕаy. Μеrоnym were thеrе, yibberin’ hеr аbout trekіn’ uр Μаunа Ѕоl. Why does this Ρrеѕсіеnt wоmаn соmе сurѕіn’ and twіѕtіn’ up my lіfе?”
- “Fееlіn’ I оwnin’ yоu a real соwtow, fоr іnvаdіn’ yоur hоuѕе wіth nо ѕаyѕо. Τruе ѕоrryѕоmе… Ѕо, yоu mіndіn’ а ѕtrаngеr querin’ аbоut yоur troddin’?”
It has a poetic effect – almost Shakespearean. The irony being that if someone spoke like this today they would be lambasted for mutilating the English language with rotten colloquialisms. I found the dialect a beauty to listen to, though I can appreciate that other viewers would become irritated at the difficulties of understanding the words.
There’s much more I could say about Cloud Atlas, but the review has to end at some point. Perhaps in another life I will review it differently. This is, without a doubt, one of the most imaginative, thought-provoking films I have ever seen. Watching it is an experience. I have the opportunity to go see it again in a cinema but I don’t think my brain could cope with watching it from start to finish, all in one go, again. It simply isn’t big enough. But what I will say is that I feelin’ this move-move is mighty good, and that’s a tru-tru.
Final Rating: 10/10